Lots of answers to two questions

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There are two questions that I have been asked at least once a week for the last eleven-and-a-half years: “What do you like about the Czech Republic?” and “Don’t you miss America?” It’s not that I mind answering them, but it’s hard to keep an honest answer within the bounds of small talk.

And so I usually respond differently each time, depending on all kinds of factors, from the political situation in one country or the other to how lunch was that day. A boring lunch for instance sends me irreversibly into reveries about Mexican food made by Mexicans with Mexican ingredients, Thai food, Indian food, Korean food – the horn of plenty that is America, huge steaks, shellfish served in buckets, all to be had within a ten-minute drive. And then, one thing I truly love about the Czech Republic is that I don’t have to drive, anywhere, ever. And in any case there are always times when the most exotic cuisine can’t replace a longing for pork schnitzel.

It’s nice to live in a relatively safe country. Having said that now I’m sure to be mugged as soon as I leave the radio building, but it hasn’t happened yet. Nor is America by definition unsafe, but at the end of the day you simply spend less time in the Czech Republic looking over your shoulder.

I miss the sweetly inane curiosity that Americans have about other people, and I like that Czechs look you straight in the eye. They aren’t taught to give meaty handshakes, that clothes make the man, or that the world is dog-eat-dog. I admire my countrymen for their cheerfulness, and I appreciate the Czechs for their frankness.

Sometimes I miss visiting New York City, and the feeling of being in a human beehive at the centre of the universe. But even the grandness of Manhattan has nothing on the heavy, stone glory of Gothic Prague or the airy sophistication of its whole neighbourhoods of Art Nouveau. If just one of the buildings in Prague city centre were moved to my hometown, people would drive for hours to come and see it. Sometimes I get beset with the urge to sit in a primeval Appalachian forest or on a dune on the gorgeous Carolina coast, but, since I can’t do that from one minute to the next anyway, I’m entirely contented to wander the tranquil Bohemian countryside, from castle to castle through the evergreen forests, and enjoy the gentle and benign natural environment of Central Europe.

In daily affairs, the innate absurdity of life is recognised and accepted in the Czech Republic and that sits with me. I do not miss the American need to make order out of chaos at all costs. In much of Europe they do their best to keep things working and to keep things dignified and beautiful, but what escapes that is up to chance. For a reporter, that means people don’t call the police whenever something’s awry, not everything demands a national debate, there is less excitement, less to-do, and sometimes god-awful little to write about.

One place where you’d appreciate a bit of order though is the political arena, and I used to like the Czech Republic for the asylum it gave me from the absurdities of US politics; but that was only short lived until I realised the boundless absurdity of Czech politics. On the odd occasion I miss President Havel, trying to philosophise his way through the absurdities of both. I often remember the time he was sidelined at his own press conference with Clinton, until someone thought it would be good to get the great sage’s view on the issue of sex with interns. “The American nation,” he said, “is fantastic; big body with many very different faces. I love most of these faces. There are some which I don’t understand. I don’t like to speak about things which I don’t understand.”